Rent: The Movie

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, November 2005

I rarely go out to bars -- there's nothing much left for me there, except for drug habits that I don't need. Plus, I've become super-sensitive to smoke, it's so extreme that if I'm near even one or two people smoking, I wake up in the morning feeling like someone stuffed my head with nails that are poking out of my face. I'm always up late, though -- these days, my insomnia's so bad that I rarely go to bed before 5 a.m. So every once in a while, I get all wired around 1 a.m. and rush out to some nearby event. Then either I arrive and I crash immediately, or I get so wired that I get crazy.

On one of the crazy nights, the bar closed and someone told me that a Hollywood film crew was shooting the movie version of Rent on Sixth Street, just around the corner from where we were standing. For those lucky enough to remain ignorant about Rent, it was a cheesy musical about artists, activists and queers struggling with AIDS and poverty and love in downtown New York in the early 90s. It started as a hit downtown, then became a hot Broadway commodity. Sarah Schulman wrote a brilliant book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, where she exposes how Rent stole the plot of her novel, People in Trouble, repositioned straight people as the heroes of the AIDS crisis... and made billions.

So now they're making a movie... And, apparently, no location in New York's whitewashed downtown looks authentic enough. So, just to get a little bit of downtown New York City realness, the Hollywood film crew came to San Francisco. Sixth St., between Market and Mission, to be more specific -- essentially San Francisco's skid row, filled with rundown residence hotels and people struggling to pay the night's rent. Now, the block is also home to four trendy hipster bars: one for the rockers and art school casualties, one for the yuppies, one for the dancing crowd, and one for the whole big happy family.

I managed to gather a crowd of about 10 or so people to survey the carnage. Sure enough, the entire block was commandeered by guys in headsets looking important, extras looking clueless, and at least three different types of cops: SFPD officers, rent-a-cops, and actors playing NYPD officers. There was fake snow on the ground, and there were rainbow feather boas wrapped around parking meters. On the side of the street, black women dressed as hookers peered out of an NYPD car. Someone had earlier mentioned a fake Keith Haring Absolut vodka billboard, but I forgot to look for it. In the center of the street was a crowd of... New Yorkers, I guess... and on one side of the street was another crowd gathered around a couple of local drag queens.

I grabbed a feather boa, wrapped it around my neck and started screaming HOW MUCH IS THE RENT? Some security guard tried to pull me aside and I started doing frantic runway, smiling for the cameras even though I wasn't even getting paid. To the side, one of my friends was pissing in the fake snow. WHAT STREET ARE WE ON, I screamed. IS THIS 42ND STREET? ST. MARKS PLACE? A well-dressed lesbian glared at me. I looked her in the eyes, and said: who are you, Sue Friedrich?

I don't even know who Sue Friedrich is -- I remember Sarah Schulman mentioning her as an experimental Lesbian filmmaker. This lesbian didn't look too happy. The security guards started pushing me away from the actors, but the crowd I'd come with was blocking them with bikes. A cop was threatening to confiscate the bikes, trying to grab a guy on a bike who avoided him. I get a little crazy around cops. This one was pushing me away, and I was screaming I'M NOT LEAVING UNTIL I GET FUCKED. I kept repeating that until the cops had pushed me around the corner with the bikers.

Around the corner, another cop had grabbed the guy who had pissed on the snow, pushed him up against a wall and threatened to arrest him. The bike contingent was attempting to convince the officer to let our friend go. The cop replied that if we all went home, then he'd let him go; otherwise, he'd be arrested. We'd all heard that one before-we stayed right where we were. The cop twisted our friend's hand behind his back-- OUCH, our friend yelled.

Then an officer with a grey mustache and a white helmet rode up on a Harley. Was this part of the movie? Some drunk tried to explain to the cops why gentrification was wrong and really we were on the same side. Great strategy. Luckily, I wasn't drunk or an extra, so I could switch roles. Officer, I asked politely, why is this man apprehending our friend? I don't know, the officer replied, but you need to get off the sidewalk. Listen, I said, it's late -- all the bars are closed -- we're just trying to get home-- we don't understand what's going on. Finally, he directed the other cop to release our friend, and everyone started to walk away.

Before driving off, the officer looked me in the eyes and added: I do realize that you disobeyed my orders.